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A new step towards personalised cancer therapy?

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A new step towards personalised cancer therapy?
2019 05-17

Cancer cells exhibit great genetic diversity, even within tumours of a patient. Accordingly, they function differently and also do not respond to drugs in the same way. Cells survive despite a drug treatment and the cancer continues to develop. Analysing the genetic characteristics of a tumour can help to identify which drug it may be sensitive to. But that only works in a small number of patients (10%). Under the leadership of the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), scientists in Luxembourg are about to start a clinical study with the aim of establishing a more direct method to adapt cancer treatments individually to the patient’s cancer. In this project, scientists will use a new method to match tumour profiles with treatments. It will allow to define more precisely to which drugs the tumour cells react. The study, which will run for approximately two years, is aimed at not only establishing the efficacy of new tools for personalised cancer therapy in the future but may already enable personalised cancer therapy  for the patients from whom the tumour samples are taken for the study.

The aim of the study? Deriving best-suited/personalised anti-cancer treatments to patients by testing different anticancer drugs available on the market on patient-derived tumour.

The method? Printing cancer nano-spheroids taken from the patient tumour to mimick as closely as possible the original structure and profile of the tumour.

Unlike conventional cell culture methods, the cancer cells are not separated from one another after being taken from the tumour.  “The original proximity to neighbouring cells or connective tissue cells is not lost,” says Professor Ulf Nehrbass, Director of LIH and coordinator of the study, “And this is what increases the reliability of the method and makes a difference to previous approaches”.

The scientists plan to produce a large number of cancer nano-spheroids from each patient. They will then subject them to different anti-cancer compounds. State-of-the-art automated processes will observe the reaction of the cancer cells to the different drugs and drug concentrations: do they continue to grow, or do they die off?

Learning of the effectiveness of a drug ought to directly benefit the biopsy donors, as Nehrbass explains: “We will pass the information on to the treating physicians. They will then decide whether the patient should receive further treatment, which may not be one of the standard treatment option for the given cancer type.” Factoring in all medical and ethical issues, this is definitely an option worth considering: the patients from whom the tissue samples are taken will have already been treated with all standard-of-care/standard therapies for their cancer – without success.   “From where we stand now, we think that our approach can contribute to developing personalized cancer therapy options. It may become a significant contribution. But it is important to understand that it will take a long time to develop, and we may fail. Even in an ideal case it would likely not work for every patient and every cancer” cautions Nehrbass. “But we will try”.

Before then, the scientists still have a long way to go. Their first step (the pilot study launched today) will be to test standardised methods on a small number of patients, and to determine the feasibility and reliability of the method. After that, probably in 2020 or 2021, the actual clinical study can start with a larger number of patients and in collaboration with international partners.

The focus of the study will be on glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer, and gastro-intestinal cancer. This pilot study, which will run for approximately 2 years, is planned to include up to 20 patients, aged 18 years old and more and suffering from recurring Glioblastoma or metastatic gastrointestinal cancer.

Collaborations & funding

The project is supported intramural funding and co-funded by clinical partners. It is developed in collaboration with the CHL (Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg), the Hopitaux Robert Schuman and the LNS (Laboratoire national de santé).

Luxembourg Institute of Health: Research dedicated to life.

The Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) is a public research organisation at the forefront of biomedical sciences. With its strong expertise in population health, oncology, infection and immunity as well as storage and handling of biological samples, its research activities are dedicated to people’s health. At LIH, more than 300 individuals are working together, aiming at investigating disease mechanisms and developing new diagnostics, innovative therapies and effective tools to implement personalised medicine. The institution is the first supplier of public health information in Luxembourg, a strong cooperation partner in local and international projects and an attractive training place for ambitious early-stage researchers.

press release by LIH

To the RTL TV report